The long-running legal dispute over the Norton Simon Museum's 16th century "Adam" and "Eve" paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder took a turn on Friday when a federal appeals court reversed a 2012 decision from a lower court that had dismissed plaintiff Marei Von Saher's claims on the valuable works of art.
The 9th Circuit Court ruled 2-to-1 to reverse U.S. District Judge John Walter's dismissal of Von Saher's suit. Von Saher, who currently resides in New York, will now be able to resume her claim on the paintings in district court.
"Adam" and "Eve," which were appraised at $24 million in 2006, date from around 1530 and are among the most highly valued works at the Norton Simon in Pasadena. The diptych paintings, which show the Old Testament figures standing nude under an apple tree, were sold to museum founder Norton Simon in 1971 and became part of the museum's collection when it opened four years later.
Friday's decision represents a setback to the institution, which has fought to keep the pair of paintings in its collections. Von Saher says the paintings belonged to her late father-in-law, Jacques Goudstikker, a Dutch Jewish art dealer, and that he was forced to give them up during the Holocaust.
After World War II, Goudstikker's widow reached a settlement with the Dutch government for some property but refused to negotiate a deal for the paintings, fearing she would not be dealt with fairly.
The 2012 decision to dismiss the case hinged on a U.S. policy called "external restitution," which allowed various countries to determine for themselves who rightfully owned art that was recovered from Nazi possession during and after the war.
The paintings were among those rescued by the Monuments Men, a group of Allied art experts who sought to recover masterpieces from Nazi possession. The Monuments Men sent the paintings to the Dutch government.
The Netherlands ended up selling the paintings to George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff, who later sold them to Simon.
Judge Walter dismissed Von Saher's suit after he determined that the Netherlands had complied with "external restitution" and that the claim would impinge upon U.S. foreign policy.
On Friday, the Ninth Circuit Court said in its ruling that the plaintiff's claims "do not conflict with foreign policy" and that the lower court "erred in concluding otherwise."
The court said that the diptych "was never subject to a postwar internal restitution proceeding in the Netherlands" and therefore a claim wouldn't disturb any internal restitution proceedings.
"We and our client are delighted with the decision," said Lawrence Kaye, the lead attorney for Von Saher, in a phone interview. "Her hope is that the Norton Simon will finally do the right thing and return them."
A spokeswoman for the museum was unable to offer immediate comment on Friday's ruling.